Thursday, 19 October 2017

Extract - Christmas at Hope Cottage by Lily Graham - Blog Blitz

They say that bad things happen in threes.
Emma Halloway, who made a point of not believing this sort of thing, found herself, nonetheless, wondering if there wasn’t a grain of truth to the superstition after all, on that particular, soggy, Tuesday afternoon, while she lay in a pool of her own blood on the ice-cold concrete, the ambulance sirens getting steadily closer.
She supposed, looking back, that the break-up Post-it left on her morning cup of tea had been the first.
[note start]
I just can’t do this any more.
P.S. Might not be the best time to mention it, but just so you know, you’re out of washing powder. [note ends]
The postscript was typical Pete. He was breaking up with you, yes, but heaven forbid you might run out of clean underwear.
It’s what had attracted her to him in the first place. His practicality, his evenness, the fact that he was the polar opposite of everything she’d ever known growing up in Whistling, Yorkshire, where time stood still, families passed down centuries-old feuds like genetic maladies and people believed that the food the women in her family made could heal anything, even broken hearts.
Pete had been her ticket up the rabbit hole, away from all those Mad Hatters and March Hares. Her ticket away from Jack Allen most of all. The boy she’d given her heart away to at the age of six, who she’d spent the past four years trying to forget.
For a long time after she found Pete’s message, while she sat on the kitchen floor surrounded by the shards of the mug she’d thrown onto the linoleum, her eyes filled with hot, unshed tears, she’d tried to work up some blame that didn’t point inward. Some anger towards Pete. Breaking up with someone on a Post-it note was a fairly shitty way to end a four-year relationship, after all.
When she tried to phone him, it went straight to voicemail. Ten minutes later he texted back a response.
[TEXT START]You know I love you. But the only one who seems oblivious to the fact that you don’t feel the same way – is you. I can’t do this any more. Please, Em, don’t reply.[TEXT ENDS]
But, of course, she did. Letting sleeping dogs lie wasn’t part of her make-up. [TEXT START] Pete! I do love you, don’t be silly.[TEXT ENDS]
He didn’t respond, so she sent another.
[TEXT START]I’ll try harder, okay? I’ll do anything, please don’t do this. We can work this out, can’t we?[TEXT ENDS]
But he didn’t reply. Not even then. Which was when the tears really came.
Emma supposed – lying on the concrete, the pain starting to build, the flashing lights approaching – that the second bad thing was really a result of the first.
She’d decided, once she got up from the kitchen floor, her eyes puffy and swollen, a painful, barbed knot in the space where her heart used to be, that her weekly food column for the Mail & Ledger, and this week’s topic a cheery look into the history of Christmas food, could wait until the urge to throw herself off her building passed. To help it along, she’d decided to get some fresh air, and some vodka. She took her bicycle, the one Pete had bought her as a surprise in a rare display of spontaneity when she’d mentioned a longing for an old-fashioned bike, complete with wicker basket and floral-print panniers. It was a painful, sunlit memory that she tried to ignore. As she pedalled for the off-licence a few blocks away, she couldn’t help noting, somewhat wryly, that the basket, which had enjoyed an innocent life till then, filled with baguettes and flowers and Emma’s overflowing research bag, was now about to experience a significant fall from grace as a large bucket for an obscene amount of booze.
Which just goes to show that someone upstairs was having a bit of a laugh, because instead of getting a respite from her awful day, she’d just cycled into the little street round the corner when she was hit by the postal van.
With the bicycle wheels whirring above her head, her blood blooming on the concrete and the sharp, searing pain burgeoning in her skull, Emma might have expected that the day couldn’t possibly get any worse, but when the driver asked for her name, Emma realised, suddenly, that actually it could.
The driver, whose hands were shaking, looked dismayed when she told him who she was. Eyes wide with horror, he explained, ‘I had this package on the passenger seat and it fell off. I took me eye off the road for just a second to put it right, it was just a second mind, but then I hit you. It was like you came out of nowhere. But what’s really bizarre,’ he said, his large, grey eyes almost popping, ‘was – I was on my way to drop this off at your house! Crazy, innit?’ he asked, hefting a monstrous package from the car and bringing it down to where she could see. ‘Huge fing too,’ he muttered.
Which was when Emma started to laugh, the type of laugh when, really, you’re about to cry; when you realise how cruel fate can be. A type of laugh she was all too familiar with, being born a Halloway. Emma realised, judging from the size and shape of the package, that her grandmother had sent her the stupid family recipe book. The one she believed would change Emma’s life, and get her to admit that her life in London had been nothing but pain and heartache, and now as a result of The Book, everything would get better. Only it had done the opposite, as usual.
Sometime after that she must have passed out.
She woke up in hospital, feeling as if she were being buried alive beneath a slab of cement, and gave a cry of pain and fear. Close to the bed, a nurse with large brown eyes blinked in surprise, backing away from the bed in shock. The next thing she knew, there were a half dozen people in the room, though she couldn’t make any of them out clearly. Behind them were strange glittering colours, seeming to flash before her eyes. She blinked, trying to make sense of any of it, but couldn’t.
Everyone began speaking at once, creating a cacophony of voices, painful and overwhelming, as if fishhooks were repeatedly pricking her ears. Emma clapped a hand over an ear, and felt another jolting stab of pain, noting through her strained vision that the other hand looked as if it had been pieced together like something for Frankenstein’s monster. Protruding from it were scary-looking pins, surrounded by a heavy white cast.
Her throat turned dry in fear. Something had gone horribly wrong. The noises were coming from the people around her and the sounds were unfathomable. At last, she saw a pair of lips move and registered the word ‘blanket’. It was the nurse from earlier. She looked down and could see, rather hazily, what looked like a thin blue covering over her legs.
‘Take it off!’ she hissed. With hesitant, shaking fingers, the nurse lifted it off, and just like that the pain stopped and so did her screams. She blinked back her tears. Struggling to understand. What had they put on her? Why had it hurt so much?
People crowded closer, and her head began to spin, her heart to race. Were they speaking another language?
No. It wasn’t that. The sounds were simply incomprehensible, the objects around her a blur; only when she focused hard on their lips did the babble change, miraculously, into words.
Then someone in a white lab coat mouthed three of the scariest words imaginable: possible brain damage.
It took a few days before they knew for sure, though Emma didn’t need the tests, or the scans, or the people who came into the room with clipboards who kept asking questions, to know it was true; she could feel it. Everything felt wrong.
It had taken some time before her vision registered that the flashing lights weren’t coming from her own head but a somewhat garish display of Christmas lights, despite the fact it was only October.
‘We start Christmas early here,’ explained a brown-haired nurse with gold tinsel threaded in her ponytail, with a small, slightly embarrassed giggle. Emma felt lost, disorientated. In another life she would have shared a grin, understood, as a fellow Christmas lover, appreciated the sentiment and the need for some cheer in a place such as this. Now, all she felt was gratitude when the nurse switched off the lights, providing immediate relief to Emma’s overwhelmed senses.
Sounds didn’t make sense: she could confuse the sound of the television with the telephone, and the click-clack of heels with the opening of a drawer. She couldn’t taste any of the food they brought and it didn’t seem to have a scent. When the giggly nurse told her that she’d be taking the flowers some thoughtful friend had sent into the nurses’ station due to their powerful perfume, she realised she hadn’t been able to smell them either; or anything else, for that matter.
She saw everything in double, which caused splitting headaches and nausea as she felt off balance too. Perhaps worst of all was the way that nothing felt the way it should: a breeze could feel like a flame, while someone’s touch might feel like ice, or nothing at all.
After a few days, a doctor explained, sitting on the edge of her bed and making sure that she could read his lips. He’d brought along a small whiteboard with a black marker just in case she couldn’t understand him, though she found that impossible to read, as the letters scrambled so much when she tried to focus on them. Luckily, if she concentrated on his mouth the words made sense, though they were hard to face nonetheless: ‘As well as your left leg and arm, which were broken, it appears your accident has caused some damage to your olfactory nerve – which has affected your senses. From what we’ve gathered, the best way to explain it is to picture your senses as if they were sets of wires, and some of these have moved slightly out of place, while others appear to have crossed or been cut off for the moment.’
She nodded. The word she would have used was scrambled, like an egg. The definition wasn’t her real interest though, not at this stage; what she wanted was a prognosis, if she could only find the right words. But speech was tricky; she had to think hard those first few days, choose words carefully, hunt for them.
She swallowed, tried to focus on the doctor’s face, saw, as if through a fog, blue eyes and a stubbled jaw, several times over like a row of negatives. ‘How long will I be like this?’ she asked, finally.
‘It’s hard to say. It may well be temporary; we have every reason to hope that is the case. However…’
Emma looked away. It was funny how just one word could undermine all the ones before it. Yet. But. Nonetheless. However.
With difficulty, she tuned in to the rest of his words, focusing on his lips to match the sounds, but she found little comfort in them.
‘I have personally never encountered an injury like this before, and from the literature available, it’s unclear – it could be months or…’ His voice trailed off and she realised that it was possible she could be like this for a long time, perhaps even permanently.
‘Our main concern, however, was that with an injury of this kind you would need care. Or that you may need to be moved to a treatment centre. But luckily, that isn’t something you need to worry about.’ He permitted himself a small chuckle. ‘I dare say you are in rather good – if a little eccentric – hands.’
While Emma was still wearing a puzzled frown, the door opened and an attractive, older woman paused before the entrance. She was tall, slim and wiry. She had wide blue Halloway eyes, the blue of lobelias and Cape starlings and secret springs. Her wild hair perched on her shoulders like a living thing, in a salt and pepper mix that was tending more to salt nowadays. She wore faded blue denim dungarees, a collared shirt printed with springing hares and an expression that always made those around her sit up just that little straighter, like she could tell just by looking at you what you were thinking.
‘Don’t worry our lass,’ said her grandmother, with a wry smile, taking a seat next to her, and patting her hand. ‘I’ll be taking you to Hope Cottage in the morning. The girls and me are working on a recipe, you’ll see, you’ll be right as rain soon enough,’ she went on with a wink.
Other people had nans, or grans; Emma had Evie. It had never occurred to Emma that it might be strange to call her grandmother by her first name, till it was too late and the habit had stuck. It suited her though. Evie had always been something of an original.
‘That’s the spirit,’ said the doctor, giving her grandmother the look people often gave Evie Halloway, which was part admiration, part bewilderment.
Emma closed her eyes, stifling a groan. This was the third thing, she realised. It wasn’t bad exactly, she did love Evie – and her crazy aunts, even if she was sure the whole lot of them needed medication – but in its own way this was the worst of the three, as it was everything she’d being trying to avoid: going back to Whistling, back to her ex Jack Allen and back to Hope Cottage.

In the little village of Whistling, with its butterscotch cottages and rolling green hills, snow is beginning to fall. Christmas is coming, and Emma Halloway is on her way home.

When twenty-eight-year-old food writer Emma Halloway gets dumped then knocked off her bike, she’s broken in more ways than one, and returns to her family’s cosy cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. Emma hasn’t been back in some time, running from her crazy relatives and her childhood sweetheart, Jack Allen.

Emma’s grandmother is determined to bake her back to health and happiness, as the Halloways have done for generations. Surrounded by old friends and warm cinnamon buns, Emma starts to believe in her family’s special talents for healing again. But then in walks Jack with his sparkling hazel eyes, stirring up the family feud between them. 

As the twinkly lights are strung between the streetlamps, Emma remembers just why she fell for Jack in the first place... and why a Halloway should never date an Allen.

The infuriating new lodger, Sandro, doesn’t believe anyone should have to choose between love and family. With a little bit of Christmas magic, can Emma and Jack find a way to be together, or will Emma find herself heartbroken once more?

An utterly gorgeous Christmas romance about the importance of family, freshly baked biscuits, and learning to trust your heart. Perfect for fans of Phillipa Ashley, Debbie Johnson and Debbie Macomber.

About the author:

Lily grew up in dusty Johannesburg, which gave her a longing for the sea that has never quite gone away; so much so that sometimes she'll find sand grouting the teaspoons, and an ocean in a teacup. She lives now in the English countryside with her husband and her sweet, slobbering bulldog Fudge, and brings her love for the sea and country-living to her fiction.

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